The Coinage of 1921, Part One

Posted by David W. Lange, NGC Research Director on 10/1/2004

One of my favorite dates for United States coinage is 1921. The obvious appeal of this date is, of course, that it includes several scarce and rare issues, but there's even more to the story.


David Lange

One of my favorite dates for United States coinage is 1921. The obvious appeal of this date is, of course, that it includes several scarce and rare issues, but there's even more to the story. It seems that all, or nearly all, of the various denominations coined that year underwent some modifications by the US Mint's Engraving Department. These revisions are mostly quite subtle. Furthermore, some of the changes continued through the end of the series, while others are unique to 1921. In this three-part study, I'll take a look at some of the distinctive features which make the United States coinage of that year so intriguing.

One of the consequences of World War I was a tremendous increase in the mintage figures for USA coins. Creating so many working hubs and dies visibly wore down the master hubs for several denominations. This loss of detail was most evident on the obverse of each design, which, because it typically featured greater contrast in the height of relief between various elements, was subject to more rapid erosion. Having been coined in the greatest numbers, it was the two minor coin denominations of one cent and five cents that suffered the most, and these coins were never again as sharp as they had been before the war years. By the end of 1920, however, mintage figures were declining, and the Mint had an opportunity to address some of these concerns.

The master dies for 1921 would have been prepared during the final quarter of 1920, so that working hubs and dies could be on hand for the new year. It was at this time that several minor changes were effected to improve sharpness. The cent, which had clearly lost the most detail since 1916, was curiously given only a cursory treatment. The initials "V.D.B." added discretely in 1918, were sharpened by hand on the master hub in 1921. Since all subsequent obverse master dies were sunk from this hub for the next 40+ years, the sharpened letters survived until suffering the same overall erosion evident on Lincoln cents of the 1930s through 1968. The loss of detail in Lincoln's hair and beard were seemingly ignored in 1921, perhaps being not so obvious at that time, but nearly all such detail was obscured by the 1950s.

Through having nothing to do with the master hubs and dies involved, there are other peculiarities about the 1921-S cents, in particular. Typical of branch mint coins produced during the 1920s, both the obverse and reverse dies employed to strike this issue were used way beyond their reasonable limit, and examples showing extreme die erosion are found quite often. In addition, quite a number of 1921-S cents were coined from an obverse die in which the 'S' mintmark was punched very close to the date and also quite shallowly. The mintmark is so weak on these cents that it is nearly invisible on worn coins. In perusing old coin albums, I've encountered well worn 1921-S cents that had been placed in the 1921 "plain" slot by owners who failed to notice the faint mintmark.

All of the 1921-S cents, and most of those struck at Philadelphia, were produced during the first quarter of the year. A worldwide recession reduced the demand for new coins until well into 1923. In fact, as late as June 30, 1922, the San Francisco Mint still had more than 15 million undistributed cents in its vaults. During this long period of idleness, these mostly 1920-S and 1921-S cents would have begun to tone, perhaps accounting for the rarity of these dates in fully red condition.

The Buffalo nickels of 1921 differed from the cents of that year in that the changes made were effected in the master dies for that year alone, not in the master hubs used for the entire series. The date itself was engraved to a greater depth, and the numeral 1 was given serifs and slight concavity at its center. The master dies for both sides of this coin were sunk to a slightly greater depth than normal, and 1921 nickels of either mint may be found with extremely bold detail and visibly higher relief. Of course, this was lost as the working dies eroded through use, but early strikes have a very distinctive look.

Worn dies are all too typical of 1921-dated nickels from either mint. While the Philadelphia nickels sometimes show the effects of extended die usage, the dies wearing from the peripheries inward, those struck on the west coast betray a form of die erosion that occurred prematurely. In fact, the dies for both Denver and San Francisco Mint coins of the 1920s seem to have eroded uniformly across their entire faces, suggesting that these mints failed to harden them fully. Since the reverse dies did not bear dates, these were often used to ridiculous lengths, producing coins on which the mintmark is not distinguishable between 'D' and 'S.'

1921-S nickels were all coined during the second half of that year, and production of this denomination there did not resume until the final months of 1923. This issue is plagued with streaks and laminations, as all three United States Mints were experimenting with outside vendors for the procuring of ready-to-coin planchets.

David W. Lange's column "USA Coin Album" appears monthly in Numismatist, the official publication of the American Numismatic Association.